As we begin the year 2022, in these unprecedented times, I know it’s easy to give in to despair.
We are facing a raging pandemic with seemingly no end in sight. We are rapidly moving toward oligarchy and while income and wealth inequality grows, millions struggle to obtain the basic necessities of life. We have a dysfunctional healthcare system with more than 84 million uninsured or underinsured and nearly one out of four unable to afford prescription drugs. Climate change is ravaging the planet and systemic racism and other forms of bigotry continue to eat away at the fabric of our society. We have a corrupt political system in which corporate money buys elections and a mainstream media that largely ignores the pain that ordinary people experience.
And, in the midst of all this, Republicans across the country are working overtime trying to undermine democracy by making it harder for people of color, young people and those who oppose them to vote in our next elections.
In other words, the challenges we face are enormous and it is easy to understand why many may fall into depression and cynicism. This is a state of mind, however, that we must resist – not only for ourselves but for our kids and future generations. The stakes are just too high. Despair is not an option. We must stand up and fight back.
And here is some very good news. While the corporate-owned media may not be actively reporting it, working people all over the country, with extraordinary courage and determination, are taking on corporate greed, and they are winning.
Workers at John Deere waged their first strike in more than three decades, stayed on the picket lines and eventually won a contract with strong wage increases, a ratification bonus and improved health insurance.
Striking nurses in Buffalo won raises that moved all workers to at least $15 an hour and a reduction in staff shortages. These nurses fought not only for themselves, but their patients – and they won.
Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers won a major victory after rejecting a contract that would have given new workers lower wages and benefits.
Nabisco workers, struggling against forced overtime, inadequate wages and pensions, a two-tier health system and the outsourcing of jobs, went on strike and won. Once again we saw workers fighting not just for themselves, but for the next generation of workers.
More than 1,400 Kellogg’s workers in Michigan, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Nebraska went on strike for months and won, fighting back against a plan to give new workers lower wages and benefits.
Starbucks employees in upstate New York, for the very first time, organized a union shop in a fight against a giant corporation that did just about everything it could to stop them.
Those are just some of the inspiring efforts that took place last year. Let me tell you about what’s happening right now as workers continue to stand up to some of the most powerful corporate interests in the country.
In Huntington, West Virginia, 450 steelworkers at the Special Metals company have been engaged in a major strike for almost 100 days. Special Metals is a profitable company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett, of course, is one of the richest people in the world, with wealth of over $109bn.
While Special Metals made $1.5bn in profits last year and Mr Buffett became over $40bn richer during the pandemic, executives at this company offered workers an outrageous and insulting contract that includes a zero pay increase for this year, and a totally unacceptable 1% pay raise next year, while quadrupling healthcare premiums and reducing vacation time.
Sadly, the corporate greed that is going on in West Virginia is not an aberration. In Santa Fe Springs, California, about 100 bakery workers, who make cakes for Baskin Robbins, Safeway and Cold Stone Creamery, are on strike against the appropriately named Rich Products Corporation at the Jon Donaire Desserts production plant. About 75% of these employees are Latina women who are often forced into mandatory overtime with little to no notice and sometimes work up to 16 hours a day.
This is a company that made $4bn in revenue last year. During the pandemic, Bob Rich, the majority owner of Rich Products, increased his wealth by more than $2bn. While the workers he employs barely make more than California’s minimum wage, Mr Rich currently has a net worth of more than $7.5bn. Yet, despite his billions in wealth, the “best and final offer” Mr Rich has put on the table for his workers is an insulting $1-an-hour wage increase. That is pathetic.
But it’s also not unusual in the world of corporate greed. In Brookwood, Alabama, about 1,100 workers at Warrior Met Coal have been on strike since April. Just like the bakery workers in California and the steelworkers in West Virginia, these are workers who also have worked as many as seven days a week and up to 16 hours per day.
In 2016, under great pressure to keep the company afloat and keep jobs in their community, these coalminers agreed to a $6-an-hour pay cut – more than 20% of their average salary – and a substantial reduction in their healthcare and retirement benefits as part of a restructuring deal made by Wall Street vulture funds like Blackstone and Apollo.
Meanwhile, the executives at Warrior Met and their Wall Street investors made out like bandits. Since 2017, Warrior Met has rewarded $1.4bn in dividends to its wealthy shareholders while handing out bonuses of up to $35,000 to its executives. Yet, while the company has returned to profitability, Warrior Met has offered its workers a measly $1.50 raise over 5 years and has refused to restore the healthcare and pension benefits that were taken away.
The struggles that these workers are experiencing are not unique. There are millions of other Americans in exactly the same position – people who have to fight tooth-and-nail against wealthy and powerful corporate interests for decent wages, healthcare, pensions and safe working conditions. And let’s be clear. Class warfare in this country is intensifying. Greed is on the rise.
What history has always taught us is that real change never takes place from the top on down. It is always occurs from the bottom on up. That is the history of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement and the gay rights movement. That is the history of every effort that has brought about transformational change in our society.
And that is the struggle we must intensify today. At a time when the demagogues want to divide us up based on the color of our skin, where we were born, our religion or our sexual orientation, we must do exactly the opposite. We must bring people together around a progressive agenda. We must educate, organize and build an unstoppable grassroots movement that helps create the kind of nation we know we can become. One that is based on the principles of justice and compassion, not greed and oligarchy.
The greatest weapon our opponents have is not just their unlimited wealth and power. It is their ability to create a culture that makes us feel weak and hopeless and diminishes the strength of human solidarity.
And here is our new year’s resolution. Like the thousands of workers who stood up and fought courageously in 2021, we will do the same. No one individual is going to save us. We must rise up together.
Happy new year.